The governor looks pale. Worried. Sickly, even.
Michael Dykehouse presented Rick Snyder that way because that’s how he sees him, mired in the toxic quicksand of the Flint water crisis.
Dykehouse is low-key by nature, not one to shout at Snyder on the streets of their shared home town of Ann Arbor or even to lift a picket sign. Instead, he made his point with a portrait ...
Painted with lead.
“I didn’t want to bang people over the head with it,” says Dykehouse, 41. But he has painted politicians before, and the lead-infused Cremnitz White from Old Holland Classic Oil Colours is “part of my vocabulary as an artist.”
“The two ideas came together,” he says, and across the past two weeks, he committed Snyder to canvas in a permanent reminder of the permanent condition of an unknown number of children.
Unveiled online Tuesday, the picture has generated more response than anything else Dykehouse has done. He’s exploring ways to sell it, and to funnel some of the money to a nonprofit in Flint; an auction is a possibility, and he’ll gladly entertain suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Attention is new to him, and a bit disconcerting. Before he was a struggling artist, he was a struggling musician, with several releases on independent labels but few live shows.
He questions whether he should even call himself an artist, since he doesn’t sell enough of his oils to be self-supporting.
But he sells some of them, typically still lifes or pictures of food at $300 or $400 apiece, and he earns enough to buy 40-ml tubes of Cremnitz White for $37.19.
When he uses it, he wears latex gloves.
Neal Rubin talks to artist Michael Dykehouse about his painting of Gov. Rick Snyder, done with lead paint as a statement about the condition of children affected by tainted water in Flint.
Many shades of gray
He’s displaying the portrait on the hardwood ledge between the kitchen and den of friend Brad Huttenga’s house. Sometimes he paints there while Huttenga grades papers.
Huttenga is a schoolteacher who says his paycheck has dwindled by 12 percent since Snyder became governor. He’s not an admirer, either.
Dykehouse rents a room from him and drives for Uber when he’s not painting. By late Wednesday morning, he has already made two runs to the airport.
“Traditionally,” he says, “lead dust is what you want to watch for.”
Titanium has become the more standard whitener. The Dutch-made Cremnitz White is one of the few to still use lead.
For the Snyder portrait, Dykehouse painted a base of Earth colors — yellow ochre and burnt sienna. Everything else comes from a gray scale of various stages, each made from black and the leaded white. Even the governor’s black suit coat is softened with white.
The overall tone suggests the gray areas and confusion in Flint: who caused the problem, who let it fester, what to do now.
“You get so intimate with a person’s face ... It’s like a map,” Dykehouse says. “It’s a strange conflict.”
He doesn’t blame Snyder any less than he did when he started the picture, but maybe he’s a little less angry.
Studying the masters
Dykehouse’s father, Douglas, taught art in Kalamazoo. The son remembers being transfixed as the dad drew a sphere, then magically transformed it into an apple.
Now he does much of his learning at the DIA, leaning so close to study the techniques of the old masters that the guards bark at him to back away.
Others visitors scurry past the paintings he loves, bound for more favored galleries. Everything is open to interpretation, even crises of contaminated water.
The portrait of the governor, Dykehouse says, has been varnished, so it should be safe to handle.
Then he pauses. “You might still want to wash your hands,” he suggests.
With lead, you can’t be too careful.